Talk to any toy company around the end of a year and the focus is usually on exciting new ranges and the year ahead.
The end of 2008 was different in that it was outside factors occupying the minds of many MDs. In particular, Woolies. The toy industry had more reason than most to hope that the High Street icon would find a way to survive administration. But as, Mattel MD David Allmark points out: “Hope is not a strategy.”
Meeting the firm’s UK chief and marketing director Jackie Jordan at its Maidenhead HQ, the Woolies issue becomes the first topic of conversation. But Allmark is not unduly concerned for his firm, having already reduced its commitment to the retailer some time back.
“We had an extremely low stock position,” he explains. “Our stock was sold to other people. I wouldn’t say we foresaw all of this, but we saw trouble coming.
“We’ve had the passing of an incredible force for selling toys,” says Allmark. ”At the end of the day it’s not toys that brought Woolies down. And when you lose that many points of distribution, that’s when you start to appreciate what we had.”
But Allmark is very much a glass half-full man and sees the possible positives from the situation.
“Somebody is going to see some market share opportunities from all of this. Some retailers will wake up to find that there are 15 points of market share up for grabs.”
Mattel is one of the players on the supply side that could pick up market share from the industry’s current state of flux, he thinks.
“There’s a chance that the industry could contract this year and if it does, Mattel are more able to steal market share than anyone else.”
In fact, he says, all those watching for signs of the toy industry’s commitment to spend and resistance to recession, may have to wait another 12 months before they get an answer. It’s not about 2009, he says, it’s about 2010.
“Next year will be the test of that, because a lot of people have already committed spend. And if they have any discretionary spend they will pull it back. Next year will be the year that we will see what people are planning and I can’t imagine too many people are going to be very bullish.”
That said, he is about as bullish as can reasonably be expected, given recent events.
“We’re very optimistic for the next year. We’ve got to navigate where the sales are going to go from a retail perspective. We’ve got to push with the people who are going to be aggressive. But we feel very confident about our products and brands.”
Core products will be the key to progressing and Mattel is putting its focus on its Crown Jewels – Barbie, Hot Wheels, games and Fisher-Price.
“There have been a lot of positives this year. We’re starting to see the shoots of growth in the Barbie business. And you know, we’re not here on an annual basis, we’re here forever.
“There has been a great performance across Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price. We’re really kicking against all the stats that say we should be having a bad time. One side of the craziness we have seen over the last few weeks is that prices have moved up. For me that’s the most robust way of meeting that challenge. Fisher-Price is a good example. If it was really price sensitive we wouldn’t see growth of that nature. The economic downturn is not why people are discounting at such levels, it’s competition.”
Marketing director Jackie Jordan says budgets will be more considered going forward, but the investment will be maintained.
“We have continued to invest, but obviously we have looked carefully at how we spend that money. Spend will probably be down on 2007 but that decision has been taken for a good reason. It doesn’t mean we’re not supporting our brands.
“If you look back at the dynamics of the industry, it is resistant to the contraction of disposable income. Value for money is about how long a child plays with a toy. So the core brands and the core categories will be the ones that do well.
“Our approach this year is that it doesn’t make any sense to stick everything down, so the focus is on bigger initiatives to drive cut-through and interest. The most important thing is to communicate the key brands to the core audience. We’re looking at key programmes for Barbie, Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price. We’re looking at sponsorship, retail promotions, PR, online, etc.
“Scrabble is a good example. It hasn’t been on TV, but we’ve done a lot of third party promotions – scratch cards etc. It’s all about the point of engagement.
“Barbie, for instance, has channel sponsorship, competitions, micro-sites and so on and if you stop doing those sort of things you lose engagement.”
The balance between risk and innovation is the key to success now and Mattel thinks it has the right products for the current climate.
“We’ve got to innovate even more. We’ve got to bring product to the customer that they value and know are going to get longevity out of.
“We see this year as challenging, but we’re optimistic. And we’re even more optimistic beyond 2009. We see 2010 being an absolute blockbuster. And it has to be. For the industry.”
Barbie and more - Mattel's 2009
Barbie’s 50th anniversary is the major talking point in the girls’ line-up.
Mattel will launch a year-long campaign of activity for Barbie fans including partnerships with top names in fashion, where girls will be given the opportunity to design Barbie outfits. An extensive year-long marketing campaign will include interactive, experiential, online, TV sponsorship and advertising activity in girls’ and mums’ print titles.
March will see the release of animated DVD movie Barbie Thumbelina which will be supported by a major sponsorship deal with a leading children’s TV channel, which will introduce children to the story-line.
Barbie’s autumn entertainment release takes a modern-day twist on a classic fairytale. Following success in 2008 of core Barbie lines, which saw Barbie toy sales in fashion and beauty increase in value by 97 per cent, the offering from 2009 features additions across the whole range including modernised versions of historic performers including the Barbie town-house and campervan.
The release of High School Musical 3 on DVD in February will coincide with the launch of new HSM3 product; while in May, Hannah Montana’s first theatrical release will be celebrated with the introduction of new lines. Mattel will also expand on its Disney relationship with the launch of a range of Disney Princess large dolls, boasting a variety of feature-led and collectable dolls from well-known Disney movies.
Polly Pocket’s new product line will develop successful core play patterns – water-play and fashion. New launches include collectable stackable court-yards and the super-size Rollercoaster Hotel which lets girls combine imaginative play with a high piece count and light, sound and moving features.
The My Baby brand will continue to expand in the large dolls category with the launch of I Can Do It. Lastly, Petites Club will be extended with new items and supported by a major sponsorship deal and further online activity.
Hot Wheels will be backed by a major marketing campaign which will include TV, partnerships, online, PR and in-store ‘activations’.
Spring launches include the deco-transforming Colour Shifters and Jurassic additions for the collectible Trick Tracks line. Colour Shifters are 1:64 scale vehicles which change colour in warm and cold water. Unique memory paint ensures that the paint job stays true, even when dry. TV driver, the Colour Shifter Blaster play-set brings the colour change action to life in the form of a customisation station. And, for Christmas 2009 a popular theme is set to make a comeback with the Great White Shark set.
Hot on the heels of The Dark Knight’s success, animated series The Brave and Bold, will engage younger Batman fans. Mattel’s supporting line-up will incorporate figures and vehicles.
A new Toy Story collection launches this summer, featuring a strong range of figures and vehicles. The theatrical release of the original Toy Story, complete with 3D digital makeover, hits cinemas in October.
Cars die-cast will see two major introductions in spring. The Tractor Tippin track set will allow fans to recreate the popular scene from the animation and the Minis Race n Rescue Play-set is the first to feature popular character Red the Fire Engine. For Christmas, a new McQueen new track set is scheduled.
A major marketing campaign throughout 2009 will continue the momentum behind Scrabble, while Mr Men Scrabble also joins the portfolio to engage younger fans including popular characters Mr. Bump and Little Miss Sunshine. In The Simpsons 20th anniversary year, The Simpsons Edition Sceneit? arrives for autumn.
The Pictionary range is added to with Pictionary Man which brings together drawing, clues and interactive accessories to create a whole new way to play the game. New additions to the growing kids’ game portfolio will arrive in the autumn.
U-Create, is set to unleash artistic potential with the U-Art and U-Mix systems for budding artists and DJs, while 20Q is set to get off to a strong start in 2009 with the launch of a major marketing campaign incorporating TV, PR and online activity ahead of a brand new multiplayer launch for autumn.
A high impact marketing campaign for the Girl Tech brand is designed to reinforce well-established lines such as Password Journal and new spring line Sugar Cubes, while major launches for Christmas 2009 include FAMPs - a range of collectible electronic characters enabling girls to unlock a world of screensavers, games and emoticons on their PC.
Fisher-Price is set to make extensions to key ranges. The Rollin Around Jungle Treehouse joins the Amazing Animals collection. The chunky activity toy provides lots of drop-through and rolling action for infants. The successful Bounce n Spin Zebra will be introduced in a pink edition in the autumn, and there’s a complete new range launching this autumn for the Infant portfolio, with a brand new take on activity blocks in the Stack n Surprise range.
The Little People range celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Special edition anniversary play-sets in retro take-along tins will mark the occasion. Imaginext also remains the spotlight for the year, with Ocean, City and Lost Creatures themes.
New to the Kid Tough range are Walkie Talkies complete with super tough specification and a range of 300ft. They will launch in the second quarter.